Ever find a post that reads like it was written just for you? That is how this post feels for me. As a Liberal Arts major, I thought for a long time that I wasn’t made of the right stuff to code more than a static HTML page. Now I have days where I wonder if I’ll ever be able to code without Googling instructions for every other line.
AzLA 2013 met at South Mountain Community College, a building filled with interesting spaces.
The Arizona Library Association Conference, to be precise. The past several years I have been an observer at my state’s library conference. It was a nice experience: catching up with past colleagues, soaking in the new information. This year, I have made a swift, unintentional 180 from that approach.
I will be presenting twice, participating in a poster session, and leading an honor society meeting.
Let me say: I did not intend to overcompensate for my past AzLA conferences this much. I had one presentation idea, but then a work committee I was on decided to present, and another committee decided to contribute a poster session. My only explanation for how I forgot I was also in charge of the honor society meeting was motivated forgetting. I think I was trying to pretend that I had not signed up for a number of commitments that will be challenging, to say the least. I love each of these things individually, and have a great time working on all of them, but when they are all added together, the result is that spare time and sanity will be luxury goods until after the conference.
I don’t know about yours, but my September absolutely vaporized, taking with it the opportunity to blog Banned Books week properly.
For several years now, I have made a point of reading a banned book to celebrate my right to read whatever I want. Unfortunately, most books have been banned because they address big topics, and are consequently long and dense. While I adore long and dense books, the middle of the semester is not a particularly conducive time for reading them. So I usually read banned children’s books. This year, emboldened by the realization that I do like some graphic novels, I read Persepolis. It was a wonderful and thought-provoking story, and I loved how the clean drawings heightened the impact of Satrapi’s stories of her childhood. Although dealing with dark, violent events, she did not sensationalize her subject: the perspective was always of an adult remembering her childhood, never of the Activist On Soapbox.
Of course, now I need to read Persepolis 2.
ALA tells us that Persepolis was banned for “graphic images” (pause here to appreciate irony), but what about all those other banned books? At the beginning of the week, I helped build a Banned Books week display based on each of four themes named in the Banned Books series from Facts on File: Social, Political, Religious, and Sexual grounds.
Well, I tried to help. Unfortunately, my anthropology training kicked in, and everything became Social. Political opinions and appropriate expression thereof? Determined by the most powerful group in a society. Inappropriate religious beliefs? Society polices that one too. Sexuality and how much is ok to publish where? Society calls those shots too. Sure, in some cases that society is small–just a handful of noisy parents in one school–but if they want a book banned, they’ll try.
I had a lovely conversation with librarian leading the display about Censorship and Society, and then, feeling that perhaps I should do the job I had been asked to complete, used the Banned Books series’ judgement on whether banning was social, political, or religious. We ended up with a balanced display that was well-browsed and borrowed from. Score one for freedom of speech.
But the next day was in, I looked at the display, and my inner anthropologist got up on her soapbox to shout “It’s all social!”
First, I really like the movie Warm Bodies. It’s sweet, and any movie that puts Feist, the National, and the Mynabirds on its soundtrack has me in the palm of its hand.
Second, when I’m watching movies, or reading books, I get all librarian on the characters. An untold number of stories rely on the revelation of new information to the characters to advance the plot. Sometimes, the protagonist receives this new information unexpectedly: think of the classic accidental eavesdropper scenes. I prefer the intentional searches, though: will the character accurately identify the information they need? Where will they choose to look? These intentional searches say a lot about how people in the specific places and times interact with information. Most of the time, the characters get derailed in their search for information, coming back with the wrong information or no information at all. This serves the plot well, but, as a librarian, I try to figure out how they could have made their search a success.
I know, kind of geeky. But fun.
In Warm Bodies (end of the clip above), Nora’s line–“I wish the Internet still worked so I could look up what’s wrong with you!”–is not the start of an epic quest for information. It’s more of a joke, actually: a joke for us, the audience. In a post apocalyptic world, the teens would be well aware that medical information must be gleaned from medical texts that have been scavenged from ruined hospitals outside the city.
But in our world, we look things up on the Internet.
This is all well and good for casual searches–“Hey, what movie was that guy in before?”–but we have come to expect that we can plug some random words into Google (or your search engine of choice) and get accurate, complete information in the first five results. What’s more, we assume that the source that provides us with our information will be an authority.
Um, not the case.
Don’t get me wrong: there is some great information available on the open web. Take, for instance, MedlinePlus. Its content is curated by the National Institute of Health, and would be an awesome place to look for information on zombie Stockholm Syndrome, if the Internet were to survive a zombie apocalypse. Heck, you don’t even have to go to a library or get a librarian’s help for that one. I like to think the resourceful, practical Nora would start her search at Medline Plus.
But MedLine plus is a small island in a big, messy ocean. We all laugh when Nora wishes for “the Internet,” because at one time or another, every single one of us has done a sloppy Google search and called it real research. But this librarian laughs with a little sigh, because most people know that the Internet is full to brimming with incomplete, inaccurate information, and yet they continue to gobble this information up like zombies.
Good morning all! Another week of four jobs has passed, and I am pleased to say I showed up at all the right places at the right times every day. As you have undoubtedly noticed, all that working cuts into blogging time, and giving up sleep nowadays has more negative consequences than it did when I was an undergrad. Ah well.
For many people around me, the novelty of the four jobs thing has not worn off. After asking how all these jobs are going, almost everyone asks if I’m learning. I am learning lots of things, but unfortunately for everyone who asks, the biggest thing I’ve learned is the least interesting to explain. I am learning to think programmatically.
I am learning to break down problems into pieces machines can solve. In my case, this involves taking messy text, or strings of letters and numbers, sticking them into Excel, and then pulling the tidied data into another program (usually a database). Moving text around by hand would be a complete hassle. But because Excel has miniature bits of programming built in, it is a very powerful tool for manipulating strings as well as numbers.
The most difficult part of this kind of work, for me, is not the functions. You write them once and recycle them for the same task until it’s complete. The hardest part is breaking apart what it is I need to do in a way that makes sense to the computer program. I began my life as a lover of human language, and instructions for human beings are a million times easier to write than instructions for computers. When picking apart a task that would be simple for a human to assess and complete, I have found that I have to work backwards from what I want, or solve half the problem and then come back for the other half.
Sometimes this is maddening, because I know I could type out what I want in a fraction of the time it would take me to build a function to cobble the desired end product together from existing strings. But with that reasoning, I should pull out a pen and paper and handwrite my information. The purpose of working with a computer is to be lazy, and get the computer to do as much of the work for me as possible. Telling myself all this while fiddling with parentheses is not very encouraging, but when I finally get the problem worked out, it is very satisfying to stick that gobbledygook series of cell references together with commands, commas, and parentheses and watch it turn messy text into a perfect string of concatenated, uppercase characters.
R.E.M. reads–of course! This poster hangs beside my desk at Job 2, and it makes me so happy. I started listening to R.E.M. before I could read (thankyou Mum & Dad), probably around the time this poster came out.
That aside, the utter randomness of it pleases me. This isn’t a public library, so why was the poster purchased? How did it end up in a part of the library where it would only be seen by librarians? These little puzzles are all over historical buildings, and they make it so much fun to work in old places.
Most learning experiences are hard to quantify. After you’ve learned a new skill, it seems like something you’ve always known, something not particularly important.
Library of Congress call numbers were like this for me: I learned them when I arrived at the community college, because all I needed to know to get through my undergraduate degree was that the call numbers are read in a block, not number by number. After a year of pretending for the sake of alternately angry and petrified freshman that really, LC isn’t so bad, I managed to convince myself the same. There’s not much to it, really. If you squint at it sideways it even makes sense!
Fast forward to today, when I was researching a Spanish-language poet in a university library. Browsing takes on a whole new meaning in an institution that could hold the entirety of my community college library, reading spaces and all, a dozen times over. I had one call number and the firm belief that I, as a librarian, would either use my mad librarian skillz or my wide stubborn streak to find what it was I needed.
Upon arrival, I remembered that titles are a lot harder to read when half are sideways top to bottom, half are sideways bottom to top, half are in Spanish, and half are in English. And the Spanish literature section could eat my college’s English literature section. But the logic (feel free to snort derisively) of the call numbers is the same. My call number described a single lonely book about my author, but by reading sideways one way and then the other I oriented myself to the collection and browsed along to the books I needed. For the record, I think it was 50% skillz, 50% stubborn.
Finally, I felt like all those trips to the Poe section lit crit with the community college students were worth it: here’s how to use the reference books, now let’s do the circulating collection, here’s your limit of items, off to circulation you go. And again. And again. Now I can find literature criticism in LC too.